I grew up with a childhood dream of one day playing in the NFL. The dream became an obsession. I ate, drank, and slept football. In pursuit of my ambitions, I beat the crap out of my body with relentless overtraining and tortured my mind and spirit, believing that the only way I could be happy was a long, successful career in the NFL.
After finishing my college career at the University of Pittsburgh, I signed a contract with the Detroit Lions. Six months later I was released. The following year, I landed a contract with the Indianapolis Colts, and three months later I was released. Next was the New York Jets and again, a few months later? Cut. There seemed to be a pattern forming. The only team that would keep me was the NFL yo-yo squad, and I bounced from team to team, rejected again and again.
Beating myself up.
In the course of five years of rejection, I was very hard on myself. In most cases, I was “released” due to a hip injury that hindered my performance. Instead of giving myself compassion and rest, I cursed my body and hated it for letting me down. I felt like a failure. My self-esteem suffered. I was counting quarters, dimes, and nickels to pay for gas, struggling to support my wife and child. I felt I was letting my family down.
All this time, as my NFL career (and I) floundered in uncertainty and frustration, my wife Karen was practicing yoga. While she raved about the benefits of the practice, this was the mid-90’s, and the yoga room was not the guy-friendly paradise it now is. After years of unsuccessfully urging me to try it, however, Karen finally won. I had hit rock bottom. My NFL career was over, I had no job, and I had no idea what to do with my life. So I gave in. I may as well try, I thought. What do I have to lose?
I was in for a surprise. I had no idea that yoga would not only heal my body, but it would also help me manage the gremlins in my head. You know the gremlins—those voices that say, “You’re a failure. You’re the worst. You suck, and you’ll never succeed.” Yeah, those guys.
When I first started going to Karen’s classes, I’d get frustrated because I thought my injuries kept me from doing many of the poses. I thought about ditching yoga all the time. I hated every second of it, and in my head I’d say, “F this,” and want to bail. Sometimes I did; I just walked out of class. I was stiff as a board. Everything hurt. I didn’t realize until yoga how injured I was or how limited my mobility had become. In my frustration, feeling limited and broken, I cursed my body. I was angry with it for failing for me, for not satisfying my dream of becoming a professional football player. It seemed like I’d destroyed my body by my late 20’s. If this is how I feel now, I thought. How will I feel when I’m 40 or 50?
Yoga every day leads to awareness and healing.
Practicing regularly started a cascade of self-discovery that led me to make yoga a permanent part of my life. The more I practiced, the more my awareness grew. Here’s what happened:
- I became more aware of my thoughts.
- I began to learn to manage my thoughts, rather than letting the voices of fear, self-pity, doubt, worry, and competition control me.
- I discovered that I was very good at making myself miserable with my thoughts.
- I looked back at my bouts of rejection-induced depression. Each time I was waived or turned down, I had gone through the same emotional rollercoaster. But I now recognized it as overreacting self-induced drama. Like so many things in life, I could now see my “failures” as a good thing. Each failure opened a door into a new path—like finding yoga. I saw how I’d wasted a lot of time, because in the grand scheme of life, those years were small and fast.
- I learned, through yoga, not to be attached to a particular outcome. Life is happening so fast, so why waste time on things that don’t matter? If I could let go of things like rejection more quickly, I could move on. I could also reposition my so-called failures.
- I discovered that I could be happy at any moment I chose. No more waiting became my new mantra. I didn’t have to wait to be happy. Instead of thinking, “I’ll be happy once we have our first house,” or, “I’ll feel good when I make an NFL roster,” I found I could be happy at any moment, with awareness of the present and gratitude for my life as it was.
Over time, as yoga yielded insight, discovery, and growth, I was able to let go of the self-punishing habits of mind that led me to quite literally kick myself into misery. Through the awareness I have discovered through yoga it’s given me a flexible mind that I plan to stay open, grateful and joyous no matter what happens to my body. Thanks, yoga.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by ex-football star and now yoga teacher, Sean Conley. Sean and his wife Karen run one of the largest and most successful yoga teacher training certification schools – in Costa Rica, Mexico and Pittsburgh. They have over 25 years of combined experience teaching classes and training over 1,000 students to become teachers. Best-selling authors, they share their love of yoga with innovation, passion, creativity, joy, and spontaneity.